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Unlocking the Potential of the Discovery Learning Approach: Guiding Language Discovery

The discovery learning approach in education

Introduction

Learning a new language can be challenging, but the discovery learning approach can make the process more engaging and effective. This article will explore what discovery learning is, its benefits and limitations, and practical tips for teachers to use in the classroom.

What is the Discovery Learning approach?

Discovery learning is essentially an instructional approach where students are given opportunities to explore and construct their own knowledge. Learners are actively involved in hands-on activities in which they experiment and solve problems. Proponents of this approach believe that learners are more likely to retain information and develop critical thinking skills when they discover it for themselves.

Discovery Learning (DL) theory draws its principles from the constructivist theory of learning. It is informed by the findings of learning theorists and psychologists such as Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, and Lev Vygotsky.  

According to this approach, learning occurs when learners try to solve problems, on the one hand, by relying on their own experience and prior knowledge and, on the other hand, by interacting with the data available to them and the environment where they interact. For these reasons, DL is also referred to as experiential learning.

Learners in Discovery Learning are actively involved in the learning process. The role of teachers is to guide and encourage them to discover rules from carefully chosen examples of language. Richards & Schmidt (2002) describe the approach as one where:

“learners develop processes associated with discovery and inquiry by observing, inferring, formulating hypotheses, predicting and communicating”.

Richards & Schmidt 2002, p. 162

How to use discovery learning in the classroom

To effectively implement discovery learning in the language classroom, teachers need to play an active role in guiding and supporting learners.

Here are some practical tips for facilitating Discovery Learning in the Classroom:

  • Set clear learning objectives: Before implementing discovery learning activities, it is important to identify the learning objectives and ensure they align with the curriculum.
  • Provide guidance and support: Teachers should provide clear instructions and guidance for the activities, as well as support learners when they encounter difficulties.
  • Foster collaboration and communication: Discovery learning activities can be more effective when learners work together and communicate their ideas and findings.
  • Encourage reflection and evaluation: After the activity, learners should be given time to reflect on what they have learned and evaluate their own performance.

Discovery learning in language teaching

Applied to language teaching, the discovery learning approach relies on active learners who try to make sense of the input available to them. The teacher is seen as a facilitator of learning who provides guided activities.

Discovery and inquiry-based learning in language learning help learners develop crucial processes by allowing them to observe, infer, formulate hypotheses, make predictions, and communicate their findings.

That is, learners are involved in activities where they have to identify recurring patterns in contextualized language and formulate hypotheses about the rules governing these patterns using an inductive type of reasoning. 

This process is mediated by some sort of external intervention consisting of guided activities designed by the teacher to invite learners to develop (construct) their own knowledge of the target structures.

These activities may take the form of a worksheet where:

  1. Data is gradually exposed.
  2. Carefully designed exercises are provided.

The fact that learners may work in small groups to figure out how the target language works – through processes that involve formulating hypotheses, checking their viability, and thus developing an improved version of their interlanguage system – demonstrates perfectly well the connection of the approach with Piaget and Bruner’s constructivism and the constructivist and sociocultural model of learning developed by Vygotsky.

Guiding students to discover the target language

Teaching grammar using DL involves going through specific steps toward developing grammatical awareness of the target language. These steps include: contextualizing the target structure, consciousness-raising, appropriation, and production.

Contextualizing grammar

In the DL approach, teaching grammar involves providing contextualized instances of the target language. Presenting grammar in isolated sentences does not allow learners to see how language works. An easily analyzable language is normally used in stretches of discourse.  Consequently, grammatical structures should be contextualized through dialogues, texts, videos, audio, files, etc.

Consciousness-raising

Using the contextualized target language provided to the learners, the teacher proceeds to raise the learners’ consciousness through specific guided activities. These activities engage the learners to notice and get an understanding of a particular grammatical point in a definite context. Rutherford and Sharwood describe CR as a:

“deliberate attempt to draw the learner’s attention specifically to the formal properties of the target language.”

Rutherford and Sharwood (1985, p. 274)

CR activities are designed to raise the learners’ language awareness by inviting them to do specific tasks. The aim is to develop conscious language knowledge.

In accordance with the DL approach described above, one way of raising the learners’ consciousness is by involving them in discovery activities. The teacher may draw learners’ attention to recurring patterns and invite them to notice and figure out a grammar rule. Here are the different phases involved in CR (adapted from Ellis 2002):

  1. Representative and contextualized target language is provided to the learners.
  2. Specific features of the language are isolated for focused attention.
  3. Learners make an intellectual effort to notice the target structure, compare it to their own interlanguage grammar, try to understand it, and formulate hypotheses.
  4. In case learners’ hypotheses are not confirmed, more examples are provided and more guiding tasks are assigned.
  5. Learners are invited to integrate the target language by formulating the rule describing the target grammar structure (e.g. they are invited to fill a chart, slots, match, complete a rule, etc.)

At this stage, learners are not required to produce language accurately. They are simply invited to discover the language and develop formal knowledge about it. Put differently, the aim of CR is fundamentally concept-forming: the tasks assigned are meant to assist learners in building their conscious knowledge of how the target language operates in specific contexts.

Appropriation

While CR aims at developing a formal knowledge about language, the appropriation stage (also called the practice stage or skill-getting stage) is meant to train learners to produce the target structure accurately.

Literally speaking, appropriation, means to make something your own.  This can be achieved through practice exercises, the aim of which is to develop and automatize the grammatical knowledge analyzed in the CR stage.

To do so, learners need multiple exposure to the target grammar point. They may start with mechanical practice, where the focus is not on meaning but the form, and end up with more meaningful practice, where they are encouraged to use the target language in specific contexts to produce expanded output and fulfill communicative purposes (i.e., the production stage).

The appropriation stage involves four principles:

  • It focuses on the target structure.
  • Learners are required to produce correct forms of the target structure, i.e. it is success-oriented.
  • There is some feedback, be it immediate or delayed.
  • There is a sequencing of the practice tasks, from easy to difficult.

Production

This stage is also known as the skill-using stage. After training the learners to automatize the use of the target structure, the learners are invited to use the target language in meaningful situations. The teacher has to devise production activities that abide by the following criteria:

  • The focus should be on meaning: learners’ primary concern is to get their message through by using the target language.
  • These activities should involve some kind of information gap: the idea is that learners have to talk to find out about some missing information necessary to complete a task or solve a problem.
  • Successful performance is measured by whether the task was completed or not.
Discovery learning lesson stages
Discovery learning lesson stages

Examples of Successful Discovery Learning Activities

Discovery learning can be implemented in many ways, depending on the learning objectives and context. Here are some examples of successful discovery learning production activities for language acquisition:

After having discovered the rules of use and usage of the target language (as explained in the sections above), teachers may assign activities like the following to help them foster their learning:

  • Language scavenger hunt: Students are given a list of items or tasks to complete using the language, such as asking for directions, ordering food, or interviewing native speakers.
  • Role-play scenarios: Students are assigned roles and act out real-life situations using the language, such as making a reservation, negotiating a price, or giving a presentation.
  • Language puzzles and games: Students solve puzzles or play games that require them to use the language, such as crossword puzzles, word searches, or board games that involve vocabulary and grammar practice.
  • Language immersion activities: Students are exposed to the language in authentic contexts, such as field trips to cultural events or visits to local businesses where the language is spoken.
  • Working on hands-on projects: Hands-on projects help learners develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills, while also reinforcing language acquisition.
  • Debating a topic: This activity promotes critical thinking and communication skills by encouraging learners to evaluate different perspectives on a particular topic.
  • Engaging in research for an assignment: Research-based learning encourages learners to find information on their own, building skills in information gathering, synthesis, and analysis.

Merits of Discovery learning

Some of the merits of DL are listed below:

  • Discovery Learning is an approach that promotes active learning.
  • Rules discovered by the students themselves easily fit their mental structures and hence become more memorable because of the effort deployed.
  • It is an experiential and natural approach.
  • It promotes problem-solving and critical thinking.
  • It helps learners develop a deeper understanding of the language by actively engaging with it

Criticism of the approach

Despite the above benefits, DL critics think that:

  • The preparation of Discovery Learning lesson plans is time and effort-consuming.
  • The organization of the data and the guiding activities are not easy tasks for new teachers.
  • Not all grammar rules are easily inferable.
  • Discovery learning and inductive reasoning may frustrate the learners who prefer simply to be told the rule.

Conclusion

Discovery learning can be a powerful tool for language acquisition, but it requires careful planning and implementation. By setting clear learning objectives, providing guidance and support, fostering collaboration and communication, and encouraging reflection and evaluation, teachers can effectively facilitate discovery learning activities in the language classroom. This approach may enable learners to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of the language and build the skills needed for success.

References

Richards, J., and Schmidt, R. (2002). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (3rd ed.) Harlow: Longman.

Rutherford, W., & Sharwood-Smith, M. (1985). Consciousness-raising and Universal Grammar. Applied Linguistics, 6(3), 274-282.


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